Monday, July 9, 2007


Well, we're back. The week passed even quicker than I thought it would. We had a great time and, as predicted, the poor bottle of rum is no longer with us. As much as we enjoyed our vacation, even I don't think for one minute anyone wants to hear a blow-by-blow our week in sun-drenched paradise. Rather, I think I'll just talk about one of the books I read while I was there.

I actually read three books. MONSTER ISLAND, by David Wellington is one of the recent entries in the now-popular genre of zombie fiction based (sometimes loosely) on George Romero's LIVING DEAD films. (The best of the lot being Max Brooks' WORLD WAR Z.) It wasn't the greatest novel I've ever read but it was a lot better than I thought it would be. My buddy Christian loaned it to me and I was grateful because I really didn't want to spend the money on it. A lot of zombie novels tend to read like poorly-edited fan fiction. The second book (and the best of the three) was John Sandford's BROKEN PREY. It's one of his dozen-plus Lucas Davenport novels. It didn't necessarily stand out from the pack but, as with all of Sandford's novels, it was highly entertaining and supremely readable. I had it read in just over a day. The most notable feature of the book was Davenport's quest for the 100 best songs of the Rock era. It was a running gag throughout the book and I have to say I agree with most of Davenport's choices. If you Google it, you'll easily find it and can judge for yourself.

The third novel, and probably the weakest, was GHOUL by Brian Keene. I'm a sucker for anything lurid, (I loved the old Skywald Publications magazine covers, for instance) and if you look at the cover above, I'm sure you'll agree this qualifies. The minute I saw this at BOOKS-A-MILLION, I knew I had to have it.

Brian Keene rose to prominence in the horror fiction world with his zombie novel (see?) THE RISING and it's sequel CITY OF THE DEAD. I enjoyed those books and a third, somewhat related book of his, THE CONQUEROR WORMS. Keene's work is entertaining but at times I feel he needs a better editor. His prose can be awkward occasionally and he tends to repeat words and phrases a lot, sometimes to the point of distraction. Every author has his or her favorite words (Anne Rice seems to have an obsession with the word "preternatural" and Steve Alten probably has the words "nutrient-rich waters" tatooed to his forehead.) But Keene actually uses the same phrases multiple times in the same paragraph. This is especially noticeable in GHOUL.

GHOUL is Keene's entry in the coming-of-age horror subgenre I've been hearing about. A lot of my favorite authors have done their own versions, probably the most influential being Stephen King's THE BODY, adapted by Rob Reiner as STAND BY ME. Other notables include Joe Lansdale's A FINE DARK LINE, King's IT and, one of my favorites, Richard Laymon's THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW. What makes GHOUL stand out for me is the fact that, while most of these kind of stories are set in the '40s or '50s because of the perceived innocence of those eras, Keene's tale is set in 1984. This was my time. I'm a child of the '80s and, though I know it wasn't exactly a "magical" time, it's taken on a sort of nostalgic sheen in my memories and I have a fondness for the era that made me look forward to this book with anticipation.

The story concerns three grade school friends growing up in a small Pennsylvania mill town. We're introduced to Timmy, Barry and Doug on the first day of summer vacation. Timmy is the main character and we see the story unfold predominately through his eyes. Timmy is obsessed with comic books and horror movies (and, so, I identified with him instantly) and has the most normal home life of the three friends. Doug is a bit stereotypical as the fat kid with glasses who can draw. (I also identified with him, unfortunately.) Abandoned by his father, he finds himself the object of unwanted attention from his drunken mother. Barry is the tough kid of the group, determined to escape his abusive father and nearly catatonic mother.

The trio is looking forward to their summer with enthusiasm. Well, that is, until the Ghoul shows up. The Ghoul is a slimy white creature who awakens beneath the town cemetary after centuries of imprisonment and begins digging tunnels and eating corpses. Things get nasty when he comes above ground and decides to interact with the living. I'm not giving anything away because Keene pretty much shows all his cards early on in the story. I was hoping for a little subtlety but Keene doesn't hold anything back for an eventual "big reveal." The Ghoul is described in detail nearly from the very beginning. (In fact, he looks a bit like this guy from Frisky Dingo:

His awkward prose and lack of finesse aren't the only problems with the story, though. As I said, it's set in 1984 and he reminds you of that fact at every turn. He bludgeons you with '80s references on almost every page as if he'd done meticulous research and didn't want to waste a single tidbit. Keene is either a really big comics fan or he read waaaay too much about them in preparation for this novel. I think it's the former and it's the reason I decided to cut him some slack. But the references to actual comics, right down to issue numbers and excruciating descriptions of cover art and even publisher logos had even me rolling my eyes.

Another shortcoming of the work is that Keene isn't just giving us his version of the coming-of-age story, he seems to be giving us his version of all the coming-of-age stories he's read before. It's as if he threw IT, THE BODY and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES into a blender and what he poured out was GHOUL. One of the review blurbs on the cover proclaims Keene is the "new Stephen King" and he seems to go out of his way to prove it, even regurgitating such old King stand-bys as describing pre-storm air as "smelling of ozone." It got a bit distracting. And the Ghoul itself just feels like a combination of Laymon's "Beast House" creatures and Clive Barker's Rawhead Rex. Keene's obviously a fan and student of the genre. He should be aware that his readers are as well. There's a difference between respecting your influences and being slavish to them.

I really wanted to like this book. After all, it's almost as if it was written for me. But other than the disturbing relationship between Doug and his mother and a really horrifying punishment Timmy receives late in the book (One that I have to say just did NOT ring true to me. No loving parent—and Timmy's dad does love him—would ever do that.) there's just nothing new here. Add to that a rushed ending that was going for poignance and just felt predictable and forced...

Keene's capable of better than this. CONQUEROR WORMS was really entertaining and original. I'm hoping for a return to form with his upcoming DEAD SEA. I just wish Leisure would give the clawing hands motif on the covers a rest.


Leaf said...

Should I just return 'Ghoul' to you now? Doesn't seem like there's much point in reading it after your thorough review. Though, like you, I am a sucker for the zombie genre and will give it a chance. The sad thing is I'm about done rereading 'World War Z' and anything after that is gonna look/read like high-school level fiction. Oh well.

Matt Wieringo said...

Nah. Read it. You can read a book in about 20 minutes anyway. It's worth the time just for all the comic book memory lane stuff. If nothing else, Keene has good taste in comics.

Leaf said...

Kinda get the feeling that this might've been an earlier piece of work that he repackaged in lieu of capitalizing on his growing fame. The fact that "it was Katie's turn to blush" twice in four sentences was shoddy. The climax was so anti-climatic I thought there had to be more to the story, but that was it since the epilogue was completely worthless. Oh well.